Utah elections office throws out an anti-tax reform referendum a day after it was filed

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Steve Maxfield, chairman of The People's Right, is vowing to fight in court the Lieutenant Governor's Office rejection of an application to start a referendum to erase tax reform legislation that just passed.

The Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office on Wednesday halted one of two citizen referendums seeking to overturn tax reform legislation passed last week.

It rejected the application by The People’s Right because only four of its six official sponsors voted in the last general election, and five are required by state law, said a letter by Derek Brenchley, deputy director of elections for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

That infuriates the leader of the group, Steve Maxfield, who says he plans to challenge it quickly in court, along with other provisions that he said have made referendums virtually impossible despite a mandate for them in the Utah Constitution.

“It serves no legitimate government purpose to make multiple classes of voters” between those who voted in the last election and those who did not, he said. “It’s like Jim Crow laws.”

One of the two rejected voters was Maxfield’s son, Morris. He is an 18-year-old who took off school on Tuesday to register to vote before signing the referendum application as an official sponsor.

“He doesn’t get a full right to participate in the legislative process until he’s 21 and has voted in a general election,” Maxfield complained. “It makes no sense.”

Maxfield cannot refile because the legal deadline — five days after a special session — expired at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, and Maxfield had filed his application just minutes before that.

A separate referendum drive by a bipartisan group led by former Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, continues to move forward.

Maxfield says that effort is doomed to fail because organizers are refusing to use paid signature gatherers. Maxfield hoped to hire petition passers, and estimates that would have cost $4 million.

Utah law allows residents to try to overturn newly passed legislation — but makes it difficult. Groups must gather a minimum of 115,689 signatures by Jan. 21 (40 days after the special session last week). They also must gather signatures from at least 8% of registered voters in 15 of Utah’s 29 counties.

Other recent initiatives that successfully garnered that many signatures often required about a year to do so, and used paid signature gatherers.

Maxfield — who waged an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the Legislature after it repealed and replaced a voter-passed initiative on medical marijuana — said the high number of required signatures and short time to gather them or even file an application make the constitutional guarantee of referendums virtually meaningless.

“It’s impossible,” Maxfield said. “I’m afraid that’s the stark reality.”

Referendum leaders are upset that the tax legislation, passed in a special session last week, increases the sales tax on food, raises the gasoline tax and shifts education funding.

Republican legislative leaders say the package will reduce taxes overall by $160 million, and say as more Utahns come to understand that they will not support the referendums.

Democratic leaders, however, say the legislation is regressive and hurts education. While they wish referendum supporters well, they say putting the issue on the ballot is a nearly impossible task under rules set up by the GOP-controlled Legislature.